Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner and Department of Job and Family Services Director Helen Jones-Kelley Named As Defendants
Cincinnati, Ohio — Today, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held oral argument in the appeal of "Harkless, et al. v. Brunner, et al.", a lawsuit originally filed by individual citizens who were not offered the opportunity to register to vote at public assistance agencies, and a community membership organization, against the Ohio Secretary of State and the Director of Ohio's Department of Job and Family Services in 2006 (then naming former Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell as defendant in "Harkless v. Blackwell"). The lawsuit was filed for noncompliance with the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA), Section 7, requiring that voter registration opportunities must be offered in public assistance agencies.
The lower court dismissed the case in August 2007 after holding that no state official could be held responsible for the widespread and systematic failure to provide voter registration services at public assistance offices as required by federal law, and that decision is being appealed by counsel from voting rights groups Demos, The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Project Vote. In support of the appeal, the Justice Department's civil rights division submitted a "friend-of-the-court-brief" to the federal appeals court, asserting that both state officials have a clear duty to ensure voter registration opportunities are available and urging the court to reverse the lower court's decision.
Today's oral argument before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals is necessary to reinstitute the lawsuit compelling Ohio's full compliance with federal law. Demos Senior Counsel Lisa Danetz, co-counsel for plaintiffs in the lawsuit, attended the hearing and issued the following statement:
"The right and responsibility to register and vote is the cornerstone of American democracy. This morning, we have argued an appeal in federal court because Ohio is unwilling to rectify its violation of the voting rights of thousands of eligible Ohio citizens in failing to offer the voter registration opportunities required by the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. Put frankly, state officials are content to let the problem fester, as the state continues to ignore clear mandates in federal law, and while hundreds of thousands of low-income citizens remain outside the political process.
"Thirteen years ago, a bipartisan Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act to increase the number of eligible citizens who register to vote in federal elections. Commonly known as 'Motor Voter' for its requirement that states must provide voter registration with drivers' license applications, the law also specifically requires state public assistance agencies to provide voter registration and ensure that low-income people have the opportunity to register to vote. The registration numbers tell a clear story: only 62 percent of low-income Ohioans are registered to vote, compared to 88 percent of the state's affluent citizens. Because low-income citizens are less likely to own a car and are among the least likely to register to vote at motor vehicle departments, the requirements for providing voter registration at public assistance agencies are crucial in making sure all Ohioans have the opportunity to vote.
"The law very clearly makes it the state's responsibility to provide the opportunity to register to vote at public assistance offices. It assigns responsibility to ensure compliance to the state's "chief election officer," which in Ohio is Secretary Brunner, and obliges state public assistance agencies, like Ohio's Department of Job and Family Services, to provide voter registration services as part of their program duties.
"In response to evidence that Ohio has blatantly disregarded this aspect of the NVRA, state officials have said, 'Not my problem.' In court today, both Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner and Helen Jones-Kelley, Director of the DJFS, tried to deflect responsibility to local officials around the state rather than using their own powers, authority, and resources to fix the widespread systemic statewide problems. Brunner's counsel even went so far as to say that, if the Secretary were to be held responsible to ensure compliance, the NVRA would be a 'burden' to the office. It is inconceivable that there is no state official with the power to ensure the state's compliance with state responsibilities.
'Indeed, this response provides no better outcome for the state's low-income citizens than did the state's response at the time the complaint was filed, when former Secretary of State Ken Blackwell essentially stated that Ohio already had enough registered voters. But even Ken Blackwell did not go so far in his arguments as did Secretary Brunner today. Although Secretary Brunner was elected on promises of fixing electoral problems in this state, she made the extraordinary argument that the National Voter Registration Act — a law that ensures hundreds of thousands of citizens the opportunity to register to vote — is unconstitutional, even though it has been upheld repeatedly in courts around the country.
"The state's disregard for the voting rights of low-income Ohioans is appalling. We've seen state officials elsewhere, such as North Carolina and Iowa, step up and do the right thing when presented with failures to implement this important law. Secretary of State Brunner and Ms. Jones-Kelley should take their lead from their peers in those states, and do their job in the best interest of Ohioans."
NOTE TO MEDIA: Following the argument, representatives from Demos — senior counsel Lisa Danetz and senior policy analyst Scott Novakowski will be available for comment outside of the courtroom and also by telephone. Members of the press interested in interviews should contact Tim Rusch, Demos, at [email protected] or (212) 389-1407.
For more information on the National Voter Registration Act, including a national report on state NVRA non-compliance, "Unequal Access", and the text of the original 2006 Ohio lawsuit, visit www.demos.org.